Mike Mills’s marvelously inventive romantic comedy Beginners is pickled in sadness, loss, and the belief that humans (especially when they mate) are stunted by their parents’ buried secrets, their own genetic makeup, and our sometimes-sociopathic social norms. We are, in short, born to go off our rockers, although we might write or paint or act to gain some equilibrium—as Mills’s morose alter ego, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), tries to make sense of his amorphous emotions by sketching “the history of sadness” since the birth of the world. Beginners is like a comic artist’s take on the material in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Like Malick, Mills weaves the past through the present; underlines the repressive fifties mores that, in this case, kept Oliver’s gay father in the closet; and draws a connection between humans and nature—here represented not by mighty oaks but a telepathic Jack Russell terrier that expresses, via subtitles, its impatience with Oliver’s passivity around the dizzy dame (Mélanie Laurent) who’s obviously meant for him. It’s The Nut Tree of Life.
The nuttiness creeps in gradually. Beginners opens after the death of Oliver’s father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out as gay when his wife of more than four decades died. Mills based the character on his own father, and he captures the son’s grief in the first few seconds. Oliver flushes Hal’s medicines down the toilet, one by one, and carries out the last garbage bags—the detritus of his father’s life—for pickup. He takes his father’s terrier home. He narrates for us a series of images, the first of several: “This is the sun in 1955. This is what pets looked like. This is smoking ... ” And these are his parents when they married. This is his father saying, “I’m gay.”
Plummer’s Hal speaks into the camera when he gives his son the news, and it’s not the Plummer we thought we knew. Here, in flashbacks, the actor Kenneth Tynan called “saturnine” is light and lithe and buoyed by his new life in the open, his rasp often rising to a cheery tremolo. He’s joyously uncomplicated. Is Plummer skipping along the surface of the man? Anything but. He’s portraying, with brilliant empathy, a man elated to be skipping along the surface of his own life—a surface on which he had never been permitted to tread. His lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), is emotionally unstable but also tall and hunky and devoted, a smoocher, a cuddler: Why probe that psyche too deeply? And when Hal receives the news of his terminal cancer, Plummer silently takes it in and registers the faintest smile. Hal says to Oliver, “Let’s not rush out and tell everyone.” He’ll keep the party going until the lights go out.
McGregor watches Plummer with plainly muddled emotions: love, pride, and quiet resentment over the plight of Oliver’s late mother, who suffered for reasons that are only now apparent. It’s a remarkably centered performance. (I’ve heard it suggested that McGregor is the best film leading man of his generation as long as the budget is below $20 million.) His first encounter with Laurent (she was Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds) isn’t just meet-cute. It’s meet-omigod-the-cutest-ever. They’re at a costume party, the melancholy Ollie dressed as Freud, Laurent’s Anna done up as a gamine in a jacket, tie, and short black wig. She has laryngitis, but she scribbles notes and rips them out of her pad and gazes on him with huge appraising eyes as he reads them aloud. Her comic energy is barely contained: Laurent is a treasure. But Mills also wants you to see, little by little, that Anna, an actress, has her own family issues and is better at play-acting than being. “You don’t know me,” she tells Oliver after they sleep together. “I like that.” The two fall in love the way most of us do and movie couples don’t: stroking each other while recounting family traumas.
Oliver’s narration (with the aid of iconic magazine photos) widens and deepens the love story, which is also the story of how hard it is to love when you grow up in a family that hides things. Here is the history of the gays in America, from public lavatories to Harvey Milk and the suffocating effect of religious persecution. (Oliver’s mother’s father was Jewish but hid that from his family and the world.) Beginners is a movie about laboring to understand your own wayward impulses, and Mills has a Charlie Kaufman–like gift for devising gags that double as metaphors. Take Arthur, the subtitled terrier that watches Oliver so attentively. The dog is a constant reminder of Oliver’s father; it reflects his own neediness back; and it prompts a lecture on the parts of personality beyond our control. Jack Russell terriers, Oliver tells the dog, were bred to hunt foxes, which is why Arthur feels unexplained stirrings. He adds that, on account of their adorableness, they show up in a lot of movies.